Iran rift: The Gulf countries treading gently

Iran rift: The Gulf countries treading gently
Donald Trump's decision to pull back from the landmark 2015 Iran deal has seen the GCC bloc divided in their responses. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are treading carefully.
4 min read
10 May, 2018
The GCC bloc responses to Trump's withdrawal have been divided [Getty]
US President Donald Trump's decision to reinstate sanctions on Iran and pull out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran has sharply divided the region.

While Trump dismissed the deal as "insane" and "ridiculous", his European allies scrambling to reassure Iran of their commitment to the agreement.

Trump's announcement was met with dismay both at home and abroad, with many US politicians branding it a mistake.

Politicians who worked hard to seal the deal in 2015 - including former President Barack Obama, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - commented on what they believed was a "big mistake" that only made US "less safe and less trusted".

Across the Atlantic, European leaders similarly spoke out against the decision, with the European Union pledging to "stay true" to Tehran and preserving the nuclear deal.

Trump did find support for his controversial decision among a few of his friends in the Middle East - notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In a statement released by the Saudi foreign ministry, it said "the kingdom supports and welcomes the steps announced by the US president towards withdrawing from the nuclear deal… and reinstating economic sanctions against Iran".

Riyadh's allies in the Gulf - the UAE and Bahrain - likewise issued statements supporting Trump's decision.

The remaining members of the GCC - Qatar, Oman and Kuwait - have taken a much more cautious stance.  

Kuwait, Oman and Qatar responses

Kuwait rejected the US pull-out from the deal saying that it was "better than no deal".

Kuwait's Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid al-Jarallah said in a statement that "since the start, Kuwait has welcomed the deal as it contributes to the security and stability of the region".

Oman's ministry of foreign affairs said on Twitter that they will continue to strengthen their ties with both Iran and the US, and work towards maintaining peace and stability in the region.

"We believe the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran are committed to achieving peace and stability in the region, and confrontation is not in the interest of either party."

Oman did, however, hint at its disapproval of the US decision.

"The sultanate appreciates the position of the other five partners in their commitment to adhere to the deal, contributing to both regional and international security and stability."

Qatar, more cautious of the three, simply stressed that its main priority was "to ensure the Middle East region is clear from nuclear weapons, and to avoid a nuclear arms race which would have unspeakable consequences".

While not explicitly mentioning Iran, Qatar hinted that the "loss of confidence" could see a party rush to enrich uranium and lead to a nuclear arms race. 

Gulf rift

The US move could signal new fissures in the region. Qatar - already at odds with Saudi Arabia - once more risks straining relations even further with its stance.

Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher, said that their caution was not out of place for the countries foreign policy protocol, however, "all these countries endorsed the JCPoA [nuclear deal] when it was achieved in 2015".

Some, like Oman, "played a crucial role as a backdoor channel between the US and Iran in the initial phase of the negotiations", and to backtrack from that now would be inconsistent.

Bakeer also expects the ramifications of the US withdrawal to show a negative effect on the GCC. Qatar - who has been placed under a year-long siege led by Saudi Arabia - relies on Tehran to secure food imports.

More surprisingly, is the effect the UAE's stance will have on its economy. "The UAE constitutes more than 90 percent of total GCC trade volume with Iran, and are likely to be the most affected GCC country in terms of economic, commercial and financial relations with Tehran."

Oman, who emphasised their "good and cooperative relations with both the US and Iran" following Trump's withdrawal, look set to lose trade they had hoped for in their bid to attract Iranian investments.

Fears for a nuclear arms race grow as tensions across the region continue. Just days after Trump's announcement, Iran and Israel have escalated their attacks against each other in Syria.

Saudi Arabia had hinted that it would develop its own nuclear weapons if Iran does. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "if Iran acquires nuclear capability, we will do everything we can to do the same".

Because of its geographical location, Kuwait stands the most to lose. Hosting the largest contingent of US troops in the Middle East. Situated across from Iran and bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it puts Kuwait in a very vulnerable position.

"What's interesting however, is that these three countries, particularly Oman, are the most capable ones to diffuse the escalation in the Gulf with Iran should things go wrong," Bakeer added.